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Reviews for March 24th, 2023

Documentary Round-Up

      Three new documentaries open this week, but none of them rise above mediocrity or manage to achieve what every great do ought to achieve: to find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. The doc that's most enraging this week is Ithaka, about the struggles of Julian Assange's father, John, to free his son from prison. Director Ben Lawrence follows John around for two years and interviews him about his progress or lack thereof. There's nothing surprising about this documentary nor does it say anything new. Of course, John goes through a lot emotionally as he works hard to try to free his beloved son. Ithaka tackles the issue of freedom of speech, but without much depth or insight.  It doesn't help if you've been following the news, so you already know the outcome which makes the doc suspense-free. As portrait of a loving father, it's somewhat moving at times, but also feels a little too invasive of someone going through a time of adversity. Ithaka opens at Alamo Drafthouse in New York City.

Then there's What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat and Tears? about the 1970 Iron Curtain Tour of the band Blood, Sweat & Tears. They were the first band to perform behind the Iron Curtain in Romania, Yugoslavia and Poland, to be precise. The Nixon administration coerced them into the tour which was during the Vietnam War. Not surprisingly, anti-war activists weren't happy with them and they eventually lost their popularity. Director John Scheinfeld uses interviews with band members and archival footage to document how that happened. Despite the provocative topic, this doc remains limited in scope and doesn't spend enough time allowing the audience to get to know the band members themselves. It's informative, but also a bit repetitive and not very powerful, gripping or profound---nor does it make you tempted to check out an album of the band if you've never heard of them before. At an excessive running time of 1 hour and 52 minutes, What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat and Tears opens at Quad Cinema via Abramorama. 

      Nam June Paik: The Moon is the Oldest TV is essentially a mildly engaging, but shallow and hagiographic documentary portrait of Korean American artist Nam June Paik. Director Amanda Kim does a decent job of providing the audience with a reader's digest glimpse into Paik's artworks that made him so iconic and significant in the art world. He's known for being a video artist and coining the term "electronic superhighway." His art was unique, eccentric and profound which can also be said for the titles of his video art installations, i.e. "The Moon is the Oldest TV." Kim goes from one artwork to another without getting into much depth, though. It's easy to see that Paik is a talented, passionate and brave artist, but this documentary fails to humanize him. You learn a lot about him as an artist, but not nearly enough about his life or, in other words, the human being behind the artist. Other artists like Marina Abramović praise him over and over which gets repetitive and puts him up on a pedestal as though we should all bow down to him. Hagiography is a systemic issue throughout this incomplete and forgettable documentary. At a running time of 1 hour and 47 minutes, Nam June Paik: The Moon is the Oldest TV opens at Film Forum via Greenwich Entertainment.

The Five Devils

Directed by Léa Mysius

      9-year-old Vicky (Sally Dramé) lives with her mother, Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who works as a swimming pool attendant, and father, Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), a fireman. She has a heightened sense of smell that allows her to accurately detect scents, even from far away, and to recreate them in jars based. Julia (Swala Emati), Vicky's aunt, moves in with them after serving time in prison, and rekindles her passionate love affair with Joanne.

      The Five Devils isn't an easy film to categorize in one particular genre. Part drama, part romance, part mystery, and part supernatural thriller, the screenplay by writer/director Léa Mysius and co-writer Paul Guilhaume juggles many different tones and themes. The film opens with an intense nightmare sequence that makes more sense later on. Exposition is kept to a minimum and only gradually gets revealed, i.e. the secrets from Julia and Joanne's past, which makes the plot more suspenseful and intriguing. You also get some brief glimpses of Joanne's relationship with her overbearing, abusive and controlling father (Patrick Bouchitey). What's the purpose of Vicky's special gift to detect and recreate scents? What does that have to do with Joanne and Julia's love affair? It all somewhat connects to an overarching theme: it's hard to run away from your past or from your true emotions no matter how hard you try. Past and present are intertwined. The Five Devils has some surprisingly trippy moments as Vicky travels back in time where she learns more about her mother's relationship with Julia. The filmmakers are unafraid to go into dark territory and to confuse the audience a little. What's wrong with being confused? By the end, most of it comes together, but not all of it does in a way that ties everyone in a neat bow. There are no easy answers which can be frustrating for some audiences looking to be spoon-fed and babied. Mysius and Guilhaume trust that you'll use your intelligence as well as your imagination to piece everything together on your own and to come up with your own interpretations. It's refreshing to watch a film that remains unpredictable and demands a lot from the audience without treating them like idiots.

      Sally Dramé gives a terrific and emotionally grounded performance as Vicky. Adèle Exarchopoulos is well-cast and brings plenty of charisma as well as genuine poignancy to her role. The film's emotional depth comes more from the performances than from the screenplay. It's also worth mentioning the use of symbolism which, at times, does feel a little obvious and heavy-handed, i.e. the cold lake that Joanna swims in, Vicky's jars of scents, and the time-traveling. Water plays an important role as a metaphor. The cinematography looks exquisite with some breathtaking scenery that also adds some visual poetry. The pace moves slowly, but not too slowly, so the slow-burn helps to allow the audience to become more absorbed by the narrative overall. At a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes, The Five Devils is spellbinding, intelligent and gripping. It's also provocative, engrossing, and poetic. It would make for a great double feature with last year's underrated supernatural film The Innocents.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by MUBI.
Opens at Angelika Film Center.

A Good Person

Directed by Zach Braff

      When Allison (Florence Pugh) drives to shop for a wedding gown with Molly (Nichelle Hines), the sister of her fiancé, Nathan (Chinaza Uche), but she gets into a car accident along the way which kills Molly and her husband. After leaving the hospital, she dumps Nathan, gets addicted to opiods, goes to AA meets where she meets Daniel (Morgan Freeman) who happens to be Nathan's father.

      Writer/director Zach Braff bites off more than he can chew with an overstuffed and undercooked narrative. With a more honest, focused and unflinching screenplay, A Good Person could've been a poignant and inspiring character study of two people befriending each other while struggling with grief. The plot has too much going on all at once, but very little of it actually sticks. You barely spend any time with Allison and Nathan before the accident that changes Allison's life and causes her to go on a downward spiral. Allison comes across as a trainwreck who's hard to like because of the way that she treats those around her. She's clearly broken on the inside and doesn't have the emotional maturity to heal and to move on. Her mother, Diane (Molly Shannon), tries her best to be there for her, but her best isn't good enough---and it doesn't help her when she flushes Allison's pills down the toilet. In a contrived subplot, Daniel, Nathan's father, gradually befriends Allison and becomes her guiding light through the dark tunnel of depression, opioid addiction and grief. He has issues of his own to deal with including his own grief, and raising his teenage granddaughter, Ryan (Celeste O'Connor), whom he catches in bed with a guy who claims that he didn't know that she's under 18. That leads to a neighbor (Jackie Hoffman) yelling expletives at the guy as he runs away with his underwear on and sprays water on him with her gardening hose. It's the only funny scene in an otherwise dull, meandering and maudlin movie that fails to provide enough of a window into Allison's heart, mind and soul. Her character arc doesn't feel remotely believable, so the third act feels more like a Hollywood fairy tale rather than anything that's grounded in realism. The film also becomes preachy with heavy-handed scenes and on-the-nose dialogue which shows that writer/director Zach Braff doesn't trust the audience's emotions nor their intelligence. He does trust their imagination, though, because he leaves out the car crash itself which would've been very gory and disturbing had he shown it.

      Florence Pugh provides A Good Person with a few poignant moments thanks to her convincingly moving performance. It's too bad, though, that she's undermined by the contrived and schmalty screenplay that doesn't bring Allison to life for the audience. She also handles the physicality of the role effectively as she's quite believable during the scenes when Allison experiences withdrawal symptoms from opioid addiction. The cinematography is fine with some nice bird-eye view shots, but, for the most part, the film is shot brightly as though it were a sitcom. Just like in Garden State, Zach Braff includes a great soundtrack with well-chosen music, especially during a scene when Allison rides her bicycle around the neighborhood. There are some pacing issues, though, especially later in the second act, and the third act feels rushed. The film also suffers from an excessive running time that clocks past the 2 hour mark. It's not good when you can feel the weight of the running time. Tighter editing and more restraint would've made the film not drag at times or overstay its welcome. At a running time of 2 hours and 9 minutes, A Good Person is overlong, maudlin, overstuffed and contrived despite a moving performance by the always-reliable Florence Pugh.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by United Artists Releasing.
Opens nationwide.

John Wick: Chapter 4

Directed by Chad Stahelski

      The Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgard) closes down the New York Continental Hotel which puts the hotel manager, Winston (Ian McShane) out of a job. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) battles a blind killer Caine (Donnie Yen) in Japan before facing the Marquis for a final duel in Paris.

      Let's face it: the plot of action thrillers like John Wick doesn't really matter. Director Chad Stahelski along with co-writers Shay Hatten and Michael Finch understand that the audience wants to be exhilarated by cool fight scenes, to root for John Wick every step of the way and ultimately, just to be entertained. The fourth film in the John Wick installment has more scope, more stakes, more action scenes and more zaniness. It's a rush of pure adrenaline that looks and feels like a lengthy video game. That's the case until it suddenly turns into a modern Western midway. The screenwriters throw logic out and plaisibility out the window. By now, you know not to expect realism. Expect to laugh at the outrageously funny physical humor including one scene on a long staircase that will become as iconic and memorable as the fridge scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The most surprising aspect of this film, though, is that it tries to be poignant as it briefly explores the relationship between John Wick and Winston. Don't worry, though, because you'll find yet another action scene right around the corner. All of it leads up to the important duel between John Wick and the Marque. If he doesn't arrive at the duel in Paris by sunrise, he'll automatically lose. That, of course, leads to some suspense as sunrise approaches and John has many more killers to fight along the way. Luckily, the hilarious crotch-biting dogs are back again to help John Wick kick some ass.

      Just as expected, John Wick: Chapter 4 brims with as much visual style, opulence and pizazz as the first John Wick. Even if your heart, mind and soul might not be entertained, your eyes and ears will be. The lighting, the set design and camerawork are all top-notch and turn the film into a very cinematic Spectacle. The fight choreography is also impressive and among the many highlights. This time around, though, pace slowly this time around--it's as slow-burning as Heat, so it requires more patience than the last three John Wick films. Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane and Bill Skarsgard exude a lot of charisma and panache, even just by the way they walk. Speaking of walking, there's a long scene where Winston walks down a long hallway that's played for laughs in a way that's reminiscent of Jacques Tati's sense of humor. There are other Tatiesque moments throughout the film. At a running time of 2 hours and 49 minutes, John Wick: Chapter 4 is a rousing, mesmerizing and outrageously funny thriller loaded with action and pizazz.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Lionsgate.
Opens nationwide.

The Lost King

Directed by Stephen Frears

      After going with her kids, Raife (Benjamin Scanlan) and Max (Adam Robb), and separated husband, John (Steve Coogan), to a stage production of Shakespeare's Richard III, Phillippa Langley (Sally Hawkins) becomes convinced that she can find the remains of Richard III and to prove that he was neither an usurper nor a hunchback. She tries to find funding to excavate a parking lot where she believes his remains can be found.

      Based on the book by Phillippa Langley, the screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope is a light, breezy and captivating story. Phillippa suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and gets mocked by others, including John, for believing that she can find Richard III's skeletal remains. Despite some setbacks, she's still determined to follow her gut instinct and to complete the excavation to find out the truth once and for all. Meanwhile, she communicates with Richard III (Harry Lloyd) who frequently shows up, but only she can see him. It's empowering to watch Phillippia stand up for herself and to use her assertiveness when someone else tries to take the credit for her success or when someone else tries to lead the excavation project instead of her. She has every right to get angry, and she expresses it without hurting anyone. The screenwriters do a wonderful job of humanizing Philippa and of not asking the audience to judge her. It's also fascinating to observe her relationship with John who gradually warms up to her. He's not portrayed as a villain even though he's rude to her and invalidates her feelings. More importantly, director Stephen Frears and the screenwriters find just the right tone that blends suspense, drama and comedy with a hint of surrealism.

      Sally Hawkins is perfectly-cast and terrific as Phillippa Hawkins. She effectively exudes her warmth, charisma and, above, all her humanity which makes it easy to like Phillippa and to root for her. Steve Coogan is also superb. The Lost King works best as an inspirational character study of a woman who follows her gut instinct and convictions without giving up, despite the odds. Phillippa learns to believe in herself in spite of the fact that others don't believe her. She's a great role model because she's decent, persistent, humble, honest and brave. She's unafraid to have a childlike wonder and curiosity, essentially qualities that many adults lack. Yes, even emotionally mature grown ups can have childlike wonder and curiosity. At a running time of 1 hour and 48 minutes, The Lost King is witty, whimsical and genuinely heartfelt.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by IFC Films.
Opens at IFC Center.

The School of Magical Animals

Directed by Gregor Schnitzler

      Ida (Emilia Maier) moves to a new town with her mom, Elvira (Marleen Lohse), and gets bullied at her new school where a mysterious thief lurks. It's up to Ida and her classmates, Benni (Leonard Conrads) and Jo (Loris Sichrovsky), among others to find the thief. They each receive a magical animal belonging to Mortimer Morrison (Milan Peschel), a collector of magical animals. Ida receives a fox while Benni receives a turtle.

      Based on the novel by Margit Auer, screenplay by co-writers Viola Schmidt and John Chambers keep the plot simple, sweet and light-hearted without anything too dark, scary or complicated. Blending supernatural elements with mystery elements and musical numbers, The School of Magical Animals will keep children entertained and captivated. There's some action, but not too much, and animals are lively and amusing. Adults, on the other hand, probably won't have much to be engaged by, but at least the film avoids infantilizing the audience like The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure does. There's nothing cringe-inducing or awkward. However, to be fair, the English-language dubbing takes a while to get used to, but that's forgivable.

      The CGi animation of the magical animals is pretty impressive, so there's some visual style to keep your eyes entertained. The pace moves brisky enough, and you'll even find some enchanting musical numbers every now and then. At an ideal running time of 1 hour and 33 minutes, The School of Magical Animals is a harmless, pleasant and kid-friendly film. It's refreshing to see a live action family film which is something very rare these days.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Blue Fox Entertainment.
Opens in select theaters.


Directed by Jon S. Baird

      Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), a businessman, desperately wants to secure the rights for Tetris when he first discovers it in 1988. He teams up with Alexey Pazhitnov (Nikita Efremov), the inventor of Tetris, and travels to the Soviet Union while determined to stop at nothing to gain ownership of the game They face tough competition, namely, Mirrorsoft, owned by Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and  Kevin Maxwell (Anthony Boyle), and Andromeda Software, owned by Robert Stein (Toby Jones).

       The screenplay by Noah Pink brims with wit and knows when to take itself seriously as it focuses on Henk's increasingly dangerous mission to buy Tetris. Henk's mission turns out to be much more difficult than he thought. He even ruffles the feathers of the KGB. This isn't a straightforward biopic of Henk Rogers, so if you're expecting to get to know him better as a human being or to get a better understanding of how his mind works, Tetris doesn't quite deliver in that regard. Henk has a wife, Akemi (Ayane) and Maya (Kanon Narumi), who he barely spends time with. There aren't enough scenes with him and his family. Screenwriter Noah Pink sacrifes emotional depth for a very cinematic and thrilling adventure. Admittedly, some of the dialogue is a bit too on-the-nose with little nuance or anything left to interpretation, but those are minor, forgivable flaws because they help to make the plot easier-to-follow and complex rather than complicated, convoluted and confusing. There are many characters, and it always remains clear who's who, so Pink should be commended for doing a great job when it comes to exposition. This isn't dry, dull and exhausting like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Concurrently, it avoids being maudlin, clunky and overwrought. The emerging friendship between Henk and Alexey feels believable and grounds the film in just enough humanism.

      Taron Egerton is sensational. He's just as charismatic as he is in the Kingsman series. When it comes to production values, Tetris truly excels. The cinematography adds plenty of visual style with great use of Tetris-inspired animation. Also, the soundtrack is very lively and well-chosen while helping to invigorate the film. Then there's the slick editing and fast pace that makes it feel more cinematic. A brief car chase later in the second act is very well-shot and exciting. At a running time of just under 2 hours, Tetris is an enormously entertaining, witty and crowd-pleasing thriller with just the right balance of intrigue, action and humor.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Apple Original Films.
Opens in select theaters before streaming on Apple TV+ on March 31st, 2023.

Tori and Lokita

Directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

      11-year-old Tori (Pablo Schils) meets 16-year-old Lokita (Joely Mbundu) while on a boat from Africa to Europe. When immigration officials interrogate them, they pretend to be brother and sister before travelling to Belgium together. They make ends meet by delivering drugs for a drug dealer, Betim (Alban Ukaj).

      The Dardenne brothers have done it again. Writer/director Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have a knack for creating stories that feel true-to-life with dialogue that sounds organic. They achieve those feats with flying colors in Tori and Lokita. Right from the very beginning, you're thrown into the lives of Tori and Lokita as they're at an immigration office being interviewed separately. How did they meet? Where are they going? How will they earn a living? You gradually learn more and more about them as the plot progresses. Without giving away any spoilers, the narrative does veer into thriller territory and has unpredictable moments, but nothing feels over-the-top, clunky, schmaltzy or heavy-handed. Everything remains understated, and the exposition is kept to a minimum. The darker elements, like when someone sexually abuses Lokita, are left to the audience's imagination. Tori and Lokita's friendship and love of one another goes beyond words. Even though they're not really siblings, they're just as close as family---you'll often forget that they're not family. One of the film's most simple, powerful moments is when they sing together. It's almost as powerful as the scenes in the Dardennes' film The Kid with a Bike when Cyril and Samantha ride their bike together. From start to finish, the Dardenne brothers trust the audience's emotions, intelligence and imagination which is quite refreshingly un-Hollywood. They treat the characters as well as the audience with empathy as human beings which makes it easy to care about Tori and Lokita, and to want them to be happy and to survive.  

      Pablo Schils gives a breakthrough performance as Tori. His raw and natural performance is mesmerizing to behold. Your heart will ache for Tori as well as for Lokita as they do their best to survive their dangerous lifestyle.   Joely Mbundu also gives a wonderful performance. She and Pablo have palpable chemistry together. Everything from the camerawork to the editing and lighting feels natural without any camera tricks or anything else that would be distracting. No scenes overstay their welcome or feel pointless, so the Dardenne brothers show that they have restraint as filmmakers. They understand the concept that less is more. They also grasp that true cinema---what's truly cinematic--are the intangible emotions that are contained within a plot. Tori and Lokita has moments of hope, despair, sadness, joy, frustration, anxiety, suspense and more that's part of the full spectrum of human emotion. Like many great things, it would be difficult and unfair to categorize the film in one particular genre. At a running time of just 1 hour and 28 minutes, Tori and Lokita is a captivating, gripping and genuinely moving emotional journey. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Janus Films.
Opens at IFC Center.

The Tutor

Directed by Jordan Ross

      Ethan (Garrett Hedlund), a professional tutor, lives with his pregnant girlfriend, Annie (Victoria Justice). He accepts an offer to travel to the estate of a billionaire to tutor his son, Jackson (Noah Schnapp). Soon enough, Jackson behaves suspiciously, stalks Ethan, and claims to have some dirty on him that he'll go public with.

      The screenplay by Ryan King suffers from a plot that becomes increasingly preposterous From the moment that Ethan sets foot in the mansion of Jackson's family. It's clear that something isn't quite right when he meets Jackson. He hasn't yet met Jackson's father who happens to be away on business at the time. Jackson happens to be intelligent without really needing a tutor. Not long after Ethan begins tutoring him, Jackson suddenly reveals that he knows that Ethan's girlfriend is pregnant--something that Ethan didn't tell him, so he must've been spying and/or stalking him. Is it any surprise, then, when Jackson happens to show up at a restaurant to stalk Ethan? He also just so happens to approach Ethan's table just as Ethan happens to be complaining to his girlfriend and friends about how creepy and stalkerish Jackson is. If that scene were meant to be darkly humorous, surprising or shocking, the beats don't quite land. Nor does it lead to any Hitchcockian suspense despite the potential. What ensues is a story that gets darker and more twisted while eschewing logic, plausibility and fun. The dialogue lacks wit and leaves little room for interpretation. Moreover, the way that screenwriter Ryan King incorporates exposition is lazy and clunky. Ethan's backstory remains a bit murky and underdeveloped. There's a big twist in the third act that won't be spoiled here, but it unfolds in a way that's almost innane enough to be unintentionally funny. If The Tutor were campy or zany perhaps it would've at least been an entertaining B-movie.

      There's nothing exceptional about the performances, cinematography, set design, editing or music score that manages to elevate the film or provide with much-needed style to compensate for its lack of substance. The screenplay doesn't provide Garrett Hedlund with enough material to shine or to make the most out of his charisma which feels muted here. He doesn't manage to rise above the shallow screenplay, even during the scenes that are supposed to be moving. At a running time of 1 hour and 32 minutes, The Tutor is an underwhelming and implausible misfire that fails to deliver any thrills, suspense, fun or intrigue.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Vertical Releasing.
Opens at Village East by Angelika and on VOD.

The Worst Ones

Directed by Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret

      Gabriel (Johan Heldenbergh), a film director, casts child actors, Ryan (Timéo Mahault), Maylis (Mélina Vanderplancke), Lily (Mallory Wanecque) and Jessy (Loïc Pech), to play roles in his new film that mirror their own life.

      The screenplay by co-writers/directors Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret as well as co-writer Éléonore Gurrey is a provocative glimpse at the lives of child actors, the issues that they experience on set, and the exploitative nature of filmmaking. From the very beginning, Gabriel makes it clear during the auditioning process that he's looking for child actors with troubled lives that are similar to the roles that they play. He gets what he wishes for, but there are consequences. Ryan, Maylis, Lily and Jessy are merely children and vulnerable human beings with no prior acting experience. Little do they know the pressures, stress and awkwardness that come with being filmed. Lily and Jessy have a sex scene in the film that's shot in a way that rightfully aggravates Jessy because one of the crew members is too close to him as he's laying in bed. That entire scene makes Gabriel seem like a creep and a predator. Throughout the film, you get to know Ryan, Lily and Jessy better as human beings, warts and all. They each have their own issues and struggles, i.e. Lily who's traumatized for being slut-shamed at school. Maylis expresses her desire to quit from acting in the middle of the production, but Gabriel invalidates her feelings and wants her to stay. He takes on what seems like a parental role which crosses a boundary. It should be up to Maylis and her parents to decide whether or not she should continue acting in his film. Fortunately, The Worse Ones doesn't paint Gabriel as a villain nor the filmmakers ask you to judge him. He's just doing his job albeit not very competently, and he has boundary issues, but he doesn't cross any sexual boundaries and he means well. The film asks a lot of tough questions about child acting and filmmaking, but doesn't offer any easy answers or solutions.

      The child actors, Timéo Mahault, Loïc Pech, Mallory Wanecque and Mélina Vanderplancke each give raw and convincingly moving performances. It's easy to see why they were chosen as actors both in the film and in the film within the film. The filmmakers blur the line between fiction and reality in a way that makes you question whether the actors are playing themselves or not--how much of their role in The Worst Ones mirrors their own lives. That makes this film somewhat disturbing, perhaps intentionally. After all, it's important for a film to provoke emotions within the audience and to trust that audiences are emotionally mature enough to process those emotions. This isn't a movie for kids despite that it's about the experiences of child actors. At a running time of 1 hour and 39 minutes, The Worst Ones serves as a provocative, eye-opening and brave cautionary tale that sheds light on the exploitative nature of filmmaking and on the struggles that child actors go through on and off a film set.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Kino Lorber.
Opens at Quad Cinema.